Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The trouble with Big Fat Books

They say in every thick book there's a thin one trying to get out. It's probably partly true, as most clichés are. But sometimes thin books just don't do it for me.

Every once in a while (not too often)I want to get stuck in a BFB. That's a Big Fat Book, like Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, with 1474 pages of small, tight print - possibly the thickest one-volume novel I've ever read. Not that I've finished reading it. The trouble with BFBs is that it takes forever to read them... Of course, that's also the joy of BFBs.

I started reading A Suitable Boy ages ago. And I don't mean weeks or months, I mean years ago. In fact, I tackled this brick of a book not long after it was first published in 1993 - but I ran out of steam after only a couple of pages. The time wasn't right, the place wasn't right, I wasn't right for so many superfluous words. But I didn't get rid of the book. I suspected that I would get back to it some day.

Shortly before Christmas last year, while dusting my book shelves, I came across A Suitable Boy again and started (re)reading the first few pages. And this time it was a case of the right book at the right moment. Suddenly Voltaire's phrase, quoted as a motto at the start of the novel, made perfect sense: The superfluous, that very necessary thing... I couldn't stop reading.

Although I had to - several times over the next four months - because I had quite a lot of travelling to do. And the trouble with BFBs is that they don't travel well... They're too heavy to carry around in a handbag or pack in a suitcase. They're too thick to finish during a weekend - or even a week - away from home. Much more practical to travel with thin books that you can read though and get rid of along the way. Donate to friends, leave on a park bench, whatever. To make place in your suitcase to buy more books. Because real readers will always bring back books from their travels. Other people buy fridge magnets or mugs as souvenirs; we buy books. Thin ones, preferably.

So I had to leave A Suitable Boy behind when I flew to Cape Town early in January, and again when I flew to Portugal later in the same month, and again when I visited London and Cambridge in February, and again when I travelled to a writer's congress in Kimberley and a word festival in Stellenbosch in March. And each time, once I got back home, I had to speed-read through the hundreds of pages I'd already read, just to get back into the narrative flow. I began to feel like poor old Sisyphus, condemned to a neverending task. Except that this was rather a pleasurable task - otherwise I wouldn't have continued, would I?

Earlier this month I spent a weekend at a friend's home about two hours from where I live. Since I was going by car, not by plane, and was getting quite desperate to finish the damn BFB, I decided to take it with me. And then, woe is me, I forgot the book at my friend's home! Now if you leave a thin book somewhere, you can simply ask someone to pop it into a padded envelope and post it to you. But the trouble with BFBs is that they don't fit into envelopes...

The weight of a BFB turns it into quite an unwieldy and expensive parcel. So now I have to wait until I visit my friend again, or she visits me, whichever happens first. Meanwhile I'm turning to thinner books for comfort. But I'm really, really missing my BFB.

The trouble with BFBs is that after about a thousand pages, which is more or less where I got with this one, you are totally immersed in the character's lives. No matter how many thin books you read to forget about these characters, you yearn to know what happened to them, to Mrs Rupa Mehra's determined search for 'a suitable boy' to marry her stubborn daughter Lata, and to the Kapoors and the Khans and the Chatterjis and all the others.

I have another 500 odd pages to read before I'll be finished with A Suitable Boy. Since it took me more than four months(!) to read the first thousand pages, I'll probably need at least two more months to read the rest. And the book is already falling apart. (The front cover came loose, so I started using it as a page marker.) And since I've never had to wait half a year to get to the end of a novel, I have no idea what the state of the book will be by the time I finally reach the last page. But I fear the worst.

The trouble with BFBs is that they don't travel well and that they don't fit into envelopes and that they fall apart and haunt your dreams and never offer instant gratification. But then again, the constant postponing of pleasure is just one of the many delights of a really good, really big, really fat book. Come to think of it, maybe I should try and postpone the pleasure for a few more months?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Say cheese - and buy a book

What is the connection between a small round goat's milk cheese and one of the biggest bookstores in France?

The answer lies in Banon, a lovely little village in the mountains of Provence where the eponymous cheese - wrapped in chestnut leaves and bound with raffia strings - is produced. Tourists used to travel to Banon only to taste the celebrated cheese, but about twenty years ago a former carpenter, Joël Gattefossé, opened an independent bookshop in an old mansion in the isolated village - and against all expectations it has grown into a thriving enterprise and one of the major tourist attractions of the region.

Nowadays the bookshop with the delightful name of Le Bleuet (bleuet is French for the bright blue cornflower) is open 7 days a week throughout the year, except for Christmas and New Year's Day, and book lovers flock to Banon from far and wide to 'taste' its books along with its cheese. Tens of thousands of books (mainly in French, with a small selection of mostly tourism titles in English, German and other languages) are stored on shelves reaching up to the ceiling in several rooms on several storeys. And in summer you can take a break in a peaceful tea garden if your head starts spinning from turning too many pages. A true Ali Baba's cave for greedy bibliophiles!

It was a medical doctor who'd first told me about Banon's hidden treasure cave quite a few years ago. Whenever I consulted her about any ailment or health problem in the following years, she would eagerly enquire whether I'd made my annual pilgrimage to Le Bleuet. Then we'd usually start discussing books - and I'd leave her consulting rooms feeling inexplicably better, even before taking a drop of medicine. Maybe it's not an apple a day, but a book a day that keeps the doctor away?

During the past long winter I once again found an excuse to make a detour through Banon on the way home from a friend in Manosque. On this rainy Sunday morning I was accompanied by my husband and 10-year-old daughter. Husband immediately rushed to the room with the crime fiction (his taste in this genre ranges from Ian Rankin's magnificent Rebus and Deon Meyer's fast-paced thrillers to Alexander McCall Smith's gentle and humorous No 1 Ladies' Detective series), daughter draped herself on the floor in front of the juvenile comic books (or BDs, as they're called in France, for bandes dessinées), while I wandered off to browse through the literary fiction.

One of the joys of Le Bleuet is that books don't disappear from the shelves if they don't sell within a couple of weeks, as is increasingly the case in most bookshops. Here books are allowed to stay put for months or years, patiently waiting for the right customer to come in at the right moment and lift the book off the shelf with a soft sigh of satisfaction. Sometimes even a shout of pleasure.

We spent a few blissful hours 'book tasting' and each chose two or three titles to take home with us. My selection included two novels by Marie Ndiaye, who recently became the first black woman in France to win the prestigeous Prix Goncourt for Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Powerful Women). Hopefully the powerful prize will help this woman to be more widely translated and be appreciated by Anglo-Saxon readers too. As far as I know only one of her novels, Rosie Carpe, is currently available in English.

By the time we emerged from this cave of treasures, all the other shops in the village had closed for lunch. So we couldn't buy the famous cheese. Not to take home, anyway - but we enjoyed a scrumptious lunch in a little restaurant across the street, where the choice of cheese at the end of the meal included Banon. Of course.

A great way of spending a rainy Sunday, enjoying good cheese and good books. And it gets even better in spring when you can really benefit from the fresh mountain air. Banon's annual Fête du Fromage is celebrated next month, on Sunday 16 May. Make a note of the date if you happen to be anywhere in the vicinity - and if not, visit the village whenever you get the chance. They say cheese goes with anything, don't they? Well, here's the proof that Banon definitely goes with books.